To Youth Leaders: Don’t forget what we learned in Quarantine

By: Sam Hughes, YMI Eurasia Director

When quarantine started and we could not gather together, we all went on online. Creativity started to flow in an effort to keep as many as possible coming to our youth groups. We became excited to use “their platform” and more connect with youth where they love to be (online). However, I believe the experience at my church has been played out in other youth ministries and churches.

At first, most people joined in, interested by the novelty of “going to church” online. But over time, fewer and fewer young people chose to “click in”. Then, we were discouraged to discover that the majority of them spend all day and half the night watching movies, scrolling, or playing video games.

Let’s admit this together: the entertainment industry has won their minds and their hearts.  We are not “cool” enough to make our meetings a priority.

I pray that we have learned through this experience that we cannot win a young person’s heart with well-packaged and promoted events, entertainment, and games. Our message of truth is, more than ever, drowned in the sea of endless information and has become irrelevant in the eyes of youth.

At our church we tried changing times, adding games, better promotion, and using guilt so they would show up. But still less and less people are joining our Zoom small groups. I noticed that those who show up (now more than a month into quarantine) have two things in common:

  1. A strong relationship with their leader or others in the group.
  2. They have a growing relationship with God and crave fellowship in the Word.

The point is that the people, who over time attend the online gatherings, value the Word over YouTube, church relationships over the next episode.

In our head we know that entertainment does not produce disciples. As a youth ministry trainer, I have always taught not to build your youth ministry on entertainment or a consumer mentality, where youth only come to receive. However, I see that youth ministries in Ukraine spend way too much time, resources, and energy on entertainment and “looking cool”. I am not saying that we should spend all our time preaching at youth. We must “earn the right to be heard” as Young Life’s Jim Burns put it.

What I am saying is that we need to spend more time building relationships with our students and seeking to promote their real, authentic relationships with God and one another.

We need to be careful about our ministry priorities. Though still a tool we have in youth ministry, the big and grand event had its best effectiveness, when the church could produce events better than the secular world. Other churches with more resources might try to get close and produce “cool” entertaining events. However, even for them, once a Biblical stance is taught that is socially not acceptable (like sin or homosexual marriage), they are marginalized and labeled “not with the times”. Unfortunately, sometimes youth programs attempt to imitate the secular society, thinking it will win the hearts of youth, while neglecting personal relationships. This did not work in the past and will not work now for sure!

Jesus loved people and definitely had His “cool” moments as he served others. Healing people of diseases, like coronavirus, would be really awesome right now and attract attention. The crowds did gather, but his message was not generally accepted and at times He intentionally made strong and shocking statements to test their devotion to Him. I do not think “drink my blood” (John 6:54-56) would be a popular post on Instagram. Yes, Jesus spent time with the crowds, but He concentrated the majority of His time on His relationship with His disciples, pouring into them and training them for ministry.

My fear is that after quarantine we will go back to default… spending most of our time planning the youth group event as before and all entertainment that goes with it, while we neglect to serve in a deeper way.

My suggestion is that every member of the youth ministry team needs to be in a discipleship relationship with at least one other young person, meeting with them individually at least weekly.  If they are not ready for this the leader should train them, or seek training himself in order to train them.

My other suggestion is to use the rest of quarantine to work on your personal relationship with God, “training yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7) and lead your team to do the same. All too often, we as leaders are so busy doing ministry that we neglect our personal relationship with God, out of which our ministry flows.

If this article does one thing, I hope it will get the conversation going about your youth ministry strategy after quarantine. This is a call to rethink priorities and to move entertainment down that list. Get your ministry team together and pray about what to do. Emphasize building relationships that can carry the message of the Gospel to youth, who will not find ultimate meaning and satisfaction from anything on a screen. 

Authentic Christian relationships are something the world can never offer.

Youth Ministry in Covid-19 Times

 By Claudia Olivas, Youth Director, Mexico